The Obama administration said earlier this year it wants more flexibility in the accreditation system, to reward things like value and ‘‘student outcomes.’’
Such developments could open the door to new types of providers, which has entrepreneurs optimistic, though pushing for more.
‘‘The whole monopoly on credentialing is slowly breaking,’’ says Burck Smith, co-founder of Baltimore-based Straighterline, a small start-up with large ambitions.
The company offers online courses (self-paced but with tutors available) in subjects like algebra and chemistry. For now, it can’t offer credit itself, because it’s not a traditional, accredited university. But about 40 colleges have agreed to award credit to students who finish Straighterline courses —"unbundling’’ some of their teaching to a specialized provider.
Students also can’t use federal aid to pay for Straighterline courses. But because Straighterline doesn’t have a campus, it doesn’t charge for things like football teams, student unions and career counselors. It charges only for teaching: $99 a month, a price most can pay without federal aid. It plans to enroll as many as 15,000 this year.
Some colleges can justify their $50,000 price tag, Smith says. But for students who just want well-taught basic courses, without bells and whistles, why shouldn’t the market offer just that?
Asked recently whether he would push for more changes to open up the market, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he wants to make room for more experiments and to see the data.
‘‘College costs are crushing lots of Americans,’’ Duncan said. ‘‘I think technology has a chance, an opportunity, to be very, very disruptive, very helpful there.’’
‘‘I'm extraordinarily interested,’’ he added. ‘‘I'm not sold.’’
There’s no simple story here. We’re headed to a blended world, a partnership between innovators and traditional universities.
Students already take Straighterline courses to shorten their time at a traditional college. More than 20,000 classrooms around the world now use Khan Academy material.
California state universities are offering blended models — MOOC learning materials with onsite help from faculty — and last month 10 state systems announced plans to incorporate Coursera in a range of ways into their own teaching. The early research suggests blended models can be effective. But technology alone, while excellent at some things, can’t yet achieve the broadest educational goals — especially for students who need more help.
Roughly 40 percent of Coursera’s registered students come from developing countries, as do close to half of edX's. Coursera does not release its survey data on education levels, but most of its students seem already to have managed to get an undergraduate degree. Will other students have the Internet access or educational background to take advantage of MOOCs?
‘‘Disadvantaged populations need higher-touch services, not self-services,’’ says Peter Stokes, an expert on education innovation at Northeastern University.
Abdoulaye Coulibaly, 26, is an English master’s student at Felix Houphouet Boigny University in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. He does not believe online education can or should replace the classroom.
‘‘We’re going to be very lazy online,’’ he says. ‘‘If you put my class online, I'm going to take it and I'm not going to come to the university again. We need to come to class. They’re the teachers and they have to teach us. If we don’t understand, we need to ask questions. That’s the only way for us to understand.’’
And yet, MOOCs have obvious allure in a place where the few universities burst at the seams — if they function at all. Post-election violence recently forced Felix Houphouet Boigny to close for 17 months, and its libraries still have no books. Just getting to school is an ordeal; Coulibaly must leave his home at 5 a.m. to snag a seat in 8 a.m. class, and he’s been robbed a half-dozen times en route.
To Coursera’s Koller, the MOOCs’ potential is if anything greater in places like Ivory Coast. India, she notes, wants to increase by tens of millions the number of its young people with college degrees. Reaching its goals would require building 1,500 new universities, she notes, but India can’t fully staff its current ones. Scaled-up teaching through technology is the only solution.
Francisco Marmolejo, a longtime Mexican university administrator who now leads the World Bank’s higher education efforts, says governments around the world are intrigued by MOOCs, but also anxious. Technology’s potential to solve the scale problem is obvious. But they fear the MOOCs will become an excuse to ignore the imperative of building local institutions.Continued...